A/N: The story's got spoilers until Season 3.
I'm also beta-less at the moment, so if one of you don't mind volunteering to be my beta, kindly message me. Thanks! Hope you enjoy the story. Please review if you do! -
The kingdom was spread out like a map in front of her. Immediately below her sloped the dense foliage of the Enchanted Forest, which stretched several miles before thinning out into the undulating grasslands that formed the bulk of the kingdom. The expanse of green looked especially lush under the descending arc of the afternoon sun. From this distance, the flock of goats and sheep looked like somebody had embroidered snow white sequins on a velvet gown.
She could just make out the palace to her far left, resting magnificently on a hilltop encircled by the city of King's Quay. She saw the compact rooftops from which emerged plumes of smoke signalling that life and kingdom were running smoothly as they always did. All it would take is a sufficiently large ball of magic that would tear through the air, incinerating the palace towers on impact, crumbling their lofty architecture. She could see the banners embossed with the proud heraldry of Leopold's family lying limply against the ruins of stone and mortar. Their yellow linen streaked with blood – her blood. She would have the same glassy look in her eyes that Daniel did, the life snatched from them, though this time not unjustly. And then, only then, would Regina feel the peace she had long awaited.
Her palms itched as magic and blood pooled there. She dug her nails into them as her fists balled. Even as emotions welled up in her heart, she strove to control them. She couldn't do it, she wouldn't survive. That kind of magic would drain every energy in her body, including those that pumped her heart and she would die on the spot even before the ball of fire left her fingertips. She wasn't afraid of dying, but she wanted to live long enough toproperly savour the moment of her victory and , she didn't know if she could summon enough power to destroy the palace and kill Snow White.
"It has to wait." She whispered. She turned around and immediately the two guards behind her snapped into position. Framing them were the massive mountains, their peaks still crusted with winter's snow. Her eyes narrowed as she beheld one particular peak. Its contours were less jagged than the rest and it rose upwards in one smooth apex. Still, it wasn't remarkable to the naked eye. Only a vision aided by magic could see the faint shimmer that encircled the peak somewhere in the middle like a ring. It was particularly striking at night when the moon's rays would make it glow an eerie green. There, in a cave shrouded by that magical fog, lay the weapon that would help her strike her blow at her enemy.
"Your Grace, perhaps we should return. It seems a storm is coming."
Regina glanced at the darkened clouds right above her and only then she realized how deep she had allowed herself to get lost in her rage a moment ago. Rumpelstiltskin had admonished her for that. "Focus on the magic, not your feelings, dearie. Your environment mirrors your heart. You'll be dead because all of nature has announced your intentions to your enemy."
The ride back to the palace had gone quicker than she would have liked. She had allowed herself to rest against the seat and idly stare out at the open expanse. The rattle of wheels synchronized with her thoughts that were busy coming up with strategies. However, as they approached the bustle of King's Quay, she felt irritation. It was no longer the smell of clean, fresh grass, but that of human and animal sewage, burning coal, and rotting food. She closed the curtains and regarded the guard sitting opposite her. Normally, he would be at the box in front with the driver or at the rear, but Leopold had insisted on a guard with her whenever she ventured out of the palace. He didn't want to take a chance with so many foreigners in the city. It wasn't a gesture of affection, she knew; he was married to his duty and his duty was to protect his kingdom and its Queen.
Regina had quickly learned to see the advantage. She favoured one of the guards Leopold had chosen for her, a talkative, affable man called Bernard who had a wide smile and extravagant gestures. He looked more suited for a life in the street theatre than protecting the Queen. He certainly never managed to cultivate the stoic attitude of his fellow guards nor their respectful distance from her. Indeed, his attempts to converse with her freely could have been interpreted as downright inappropriate, but Regina never rebuked him. On the contrary, she indulged him. His penchant for fearless gossip made him a veritable source of information from all over the kingdom.
"... they like red ones... Leland pays... returned from Eastern borderlands... double wages..."
Regina looked at him. "What was he doing at the Eastern borderlands?"
"Chief Commander's decision. He's got two regiments east of the Silver River." Bernard grinned mischievously. "His Majesty wasn't too keen on it."
"What trouble does he anticipate there?"
"He says he worries about spillage from the Ogre Wars. Bandits, refugees, mercenaries, you know? But between you and me, Your Grace, I think Holbrook wants to kill some ogres himself."
Regina took a moment to consider this. Lord Holbrook's enthusiasm for getting involved in the Ogre Wars had been a chief point of contention between him and the King. Leopold did not share his half-brother's eagerness for glory and the ogre's treasures. "Not worth the stink," Leopold had joked; then added with grim seriousness, "And not worth meddling with magic."
However, it seemed that Holbrook was trying to join the Ogre Wars despite Leopold. The information could prove useful.
As they rattled deeper into the heart of the city, the noise grew louder and it was impossible to speak. She could hear the driver yelling, "Make way for the Queen! Make way for the Queen! Get off the road you louse! Side now, side woman! Make way for the Queen!"
Through the gauze of her curtains, she could make out curious and awestruck faces peering at the passing carriage. Her gaze fell on one girl in particular. She was dressed in old roughspun clothes, stained and patched here and there. From underneath a dirty scarf, thin tendrils of dark brown hair poked out. The face layered with grime and soot was very young, barely sixteen. The girl held a wailing baby at her bosom.
Regina held apart the curtain with two fingers and flashed a wide smile at the girl. The two vacant eyes never blinked, only trailed the carriage window as it passed by her. The lips didn't move. Regina pulled the curtains closed and stared ahead. "Why aren't we at the palace yet?" She snapped.
The palace courtyard was buzzing with activity when she arrived. The ring of steel against steel drowned out all noise, except for one – a high-pitched, female laughter that stabbed Regina's heart with ice. Snow White was at the shooting range, a bow fitted to her size in her hand. She was grinning cockily as the men around her clapped and cheered. A reed-thin boy with sandy hair offered something to her, which she took and then raised up above her head to more applause. Regina saw it was a blood-red apple with an arrow sticking through it. At that moment, Snow White noticed her. Her smile faltered a bit, but she didn't lower her hand.
"I see my poor fruit has bore the brunt of your skill." Regina walked up to the girl and took the apple from her. She ran a tender finger along the wound where the arrow had pierced it.
"Forgive me, Regina, but the men challenged me. Freddy," She pointed to the sandy-haired boy, "He stood there with the apple on his head."
"How amusing." Regina hooked her arm into Snow's and began walking. "You know, I have never discouraged you from your pleasures. But, my dear, you aren't a child anymore. Look at you." She ran her other hand up and down. "Is this how a princess should behave? Your father has invited guests from all over the lands for your birthday. Do you really want them to see you like this?"
"What's wrong with how I look?"
"My dear, it's just not a princess' way, roughing up with those men and shooting arrows like a common soldier. You are going to be Queen someday. And, you know," Regina lowered her voice, conspiratorially. "The reason your father has invited so many people is because he wants everybody to know you are of age now. You will soon begin to get suitors."
"Oh, Regina!" Snow laughed, "I'm not in a hurry for that. Besides, I don't think I want to marry anyone who is offended by the idea of a girl holding a bow. And Father agrees with me, you know? He chose you, after all, because of your riding abilities not because he saw you in a pretty dress in some ball."
"Yes, and I will always be grateful for my good fortune."
"It had nothing to do with fortune." Snow patted her stepmother's arm. "Things have changed a bit. I mean, look at Emma, for example. She's a highborn woman who can wield a sword like any good soldier in Father's army."
"Emma? Surely you remember her, don't you?"
For the first time, Regina became aware of the other person following them, who she had initially assumed was one of the guards, but now she saw it wasn't. It was a woman, taller than both her and Snow. Her blonde hair was tied back in a braid and she had a strangely direct pair of eyes. A faint recognition dawned upon Regina.
"Emma Swan, you are cousin to Sir Maurice's wife?"
"I am." Those eyes didn't waver, but suddenly as if remembering something, they blinked and the woman curtsied, "Your Grace."
"Is it true what Snow White says? That you can wield a sword?"
The woman smirked, "I have killed a dragon."
"And fought with a Giant."
"Emma! You never told me that!" Snow gasped.
"I hope you're not exaggerating, Lady Emma. I may put you to the test."
"Just Emma. And, err... sure."
"Well, Emma, I wish you'd reconsider about participating in the duels. Father has invited the best swordsmen from all over the kingdom. If you win, imagine how much glory and fame you would have, you being a woman."
Regina watched as Snow chattered on while the other woman nodded and shrugged silently. There was something odd, now that she thought about it, about this Emma Swan. She was quite a bit older than Snow, for one, probably around her own age. There had been no mention of a husband or children in the introduction. Not that there was any lack of childless widows in the world, especially in a kingdom that has been engaged in an endless struggle with Ogres for decades as Sir Maurice's had been. But her demeanour didn't seem like that of a woman grieving her husband or sons.
Green eyes suddenly looked up and latched on to hers. They stared at each other for a moment before Emma once again turned towards Snow.